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Meet the little-known Ngugi, the other iconic Kenyan author whose works you should be reading

April 09, 2019 at 02:00 pm | Art Attack

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Staff Writer

April 09, 2019 at 02:00 pm | Art Attack

Ngugi wa Mirii co-authored one of the most influential works in modern African literature, "I Will Marry When I Want" with Ngugi wa Thiong’o in 1977

“I Will Marry When I Want”, one of Africa’s most revered and controversial plays set in post-independence Kenya, was written by two men with the same first name. Today, however, one is highly celebrated while the other is almost forgotten.

The mention of Ngugi in African literature readily brings to the minds of many the Kenyan-born Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the global award-winning writer whose works focus on Africa and its interaction with its society before, during, and after colonisation.

Most people, particularly the younger generation, are aware of his intellectual and literary struggle for truth, justice and democracy through his books. But there was another Kenyan-born writer and playwright whose works and ideals largely had a lot in common with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s.

Also called Ngugi, but with the surname, Mirii, he was much younger than Thiong’o and less-known. However, his love of using theatre and the arts to elicit changes in society would get him co-authoring one of the most influential works in modern African literature, I Will Marry When I Want with wa Thiong’o in 1977.

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The cover of “I Will Marry When I Want”. Credit: textbookcentre.com

The controversial Kikuyu play Ngaahika ndeenda, which translates to “I will Marry When I Want”, was performed during the early years of independence in Kenya. It attacked issues among the government and the new economic elite of the country including capitalism, religious hypocrisy, and corruption.

Both Ngugis had condemned what they felt was a betrayal of the hopes of ordinary Kenyans by the country’s post-independence leaders. The play was first performed in Kenya in 1977 at the Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre, an open-air theatre in Limuru, Kenya – where the two authors had first met.

The play was a major hit in Kenya and ran for an amount of time before the Kenyan authorities banned it. The two Ngugis were arrested and detained, but five years after their release, they co-wrote another, Mother Cry For Me, which also did not go down well with the government, forcing both men into exile.

While Ngugi wa Thiong’o exiled in the United States, his lesser-known colleague settled in Zimbabwe and eventually became a citizen, declaring himself “The Son of two Nations.”

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Ngugi wa Mirii. Pic credit: Writeopinions.com

In Zimbabwe, he wrote about the social issues facing ordinary citizens, criticised capitalism and imperialism and became a strong supporter of the Pan-African cause until his death in 2008.

Despite his sterling contributions to African literature and his fight for equality and justice through his works, he seems to have been relegated to the background as compared to the other Ngugi.

Ngugi wa Mirii was born in Roromo, Limuru, Kenya, in 1952 and was the second child in a family of six to John Mirii and Elizabeth Wanjiku. He studied at Ngenia Secondary School, and from 1972 to 1974, he worked with the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications. He later took a diploma in Adult Education at the Institute of Adult Studies, University of Nairobi.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o then worked at the same university and met the younger Ngugi wa Mirii when he came to work as a senior research assistant. The two founded and managed the Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Center together, which would become the venue for their controversial I Will Marry When I Want play.

Though the play was banned by authorities and the two were arrested, Ngugi wa Mirii continued with his activism which forced him into exile in Zimbabwe after his second play with wa Thiong’o in 1982.

He joined the Zimbabwean Foundation for Education with Production (ZIMFEP), where he worked for a few years. As a theatre lover, he founded the Zimbabwe Association of Community Theatre (ZACT), an umbrella organisation which had a membership of over 300 theatre groups in its lifetime.

“Through ZACT Comrade helped the youth conscientise their communities on vast issues. The concept was theatre for the people by the people–for conscientization really on issues ranging from the political to championing rights for women and addressing the rapidly spreading HIV/AIDS,” writes Wanjiku Wa Ngugi, a Kenyan activist.

Ngugi wa Mirii also wrote plays such as Zunde raMambo, Mvura Naya Naya and Orocaza. He further directed and produced two films, Secrets and Exile, and a documentary called Children of the Highlands, according to a report by Owaahh. He founded the International Community Theater College, the Zimbabwe International African Dance Ensemble, and Visions of Africa. He also founded the Southern Africa Performing Arts Network, Southern Africa Theater Initiative, the report added.

As a Pan-Africanist, Wanjiku Wa Ngugi writes that Mirii worked towards a united Africa, travelled all over the world connecting the Pan-African struggle to the international movement in the fight against imperialism.

Twenty-six years after his escape from Kenya, Ngugi wa Mirii passed away in a car crash in Harare in May 2008 at the age of 57. Although Zimbabwe had given him a home and an opportunity to pursue his arts for effective change ideas, his body was returned to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi and he was buried next to his father and brother.

As the Kenyan activist, Wanjiku put it, “Ngugi was a beautiful human being, a Kenyan revolutionary, our friend, our comrade; To lose him is to lose part of our ourselves.”

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